Futurism Explained: Protest and Modernity in Art

How to capture the unstoppable world constantly in motion? Futurism answered this question, creating dynamic art and changing the world with its ideas – for better and worse.

Jul 10, 2021By Ana-Teodora Kurkina, MA & PhD in History
gonchareva cyclist painting russian futurism modernity


When hearing the word “futurism,” images of science fiction and utopian visions tend to come to mind. However, the term was not initially linked to spaceships, final frontiers, and surreal technologies. Instead, it was a celebration of the modern world and a dream of movement that never stops: a revolution in ideologies and perceptions.


Coined by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909, the word “futurism” first appeared in the Italian Newspaper Gazzetta dell’Emilia on February 5th. A few weeks later, it was translated to French and published by the French newspaper Le Figaro. It was then that the idea took the world of culture by storm, reshaping first Italy and then spreading further to conquer new minds. Like various other art movements, Futurism took flight to break away from tradition and celebrate modernity. However, this movement was one of the first and the few that pushed nonconformism to its limits. With its unyielding militant nature, Futurist art and ideology were bound to become dictatorial; it sought to demolish the past and bring change, glorifying violent raptures.

Marinetti’s Manifesto Of Futurism

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Portrait of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, 1920s; with In the Evening, Lying on Her Bed, She Reread the Letter from Her Artilleryman at the Front by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, 1919, via MoMA, New York


Filippo Tommaso Marinetti first conceived of the term futurism when creating his Manifesto as a preface to a volume of poems. It was there that he wrote one of the most provocative phrases one can expect from an artist:


“Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.”


Partly inspired by another advocate for the ugly necessity of violence, French philosopher Georges Sorel, Marinetti regarded war as a way to achieve freedom and modernity – it was “the world’s hygiene.” Thus, the highly debatable and intentionally polarizing text, Manifesto of Futurism, became a work that inspired all those who sought violent change – from anarchists to fascists. However, the text itself was not aligned to any specific ideology. Instead, it was bound only by the destructive desire to shape the future and dictate the rules.


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Although Marinetti’s Manifesto stirred the cultural circles of Europe and conquered rebellious hearts by its sheer audacity and shamelessness, his other Futurist works did not gain the same recognition. These dealt with provocative ideas such as violent patriotism, rejection of romantic love, liberalism, and feminism.


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Dynamism of a Car by Luigi Russolo, 1913, via Centre Pompidou, Paris


When his first novel, Mafarka Il Futurista, appeared, three young painters joined his circle, inspired by his insolent and appealingly rebellious proclamations. “Speed,” “freedom,” “war,” and “revolution” all describe the convictions and strivings of Marinetti, that impossible man, who was also known as the caffeina d’Europa (caffeine of Europe).


The three young painters who joined Marinetti in his Futurist strivings were Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carra, and Umberto Boccioni. In 1910, these artists also became advocates of Futurism, posting their own manifestos on painting and sculpture. Meanwhile, Marinetti became a war correspondent during the First Balkan War, finding a venue to glorify the “necessary” violence. Despising backwardness and idealizing modernity (he tried to ban pasta), Marinetti envisioned a “better and stronger” Italy that could only be achieved through conquest and forced change. In his Pope’s Aeroplane, he produced an absurdist text that was pronouncedly anti-Austrian and anti-Catholic, lamenting the state of contemporary Italy and inspiring irredentist activists.


Marinetti’s desire for violence and revolution extended not only to ideology and aesthetics but also to words. He was one of the first artists to use sound poetry in Europe. His Zang Tumb Tuuum, for example, was an account of the Battle of Adrianople, where he violently ripped apart all rhymes, rhythm, and rules.


By building new words and butchering tradition, Marinetti hoped to shape a new Italy. Many Futurists viewed the territories still controlled by the Habsburg Empire as Italian and thus advocated for Italy to join World War I. Unsurprisingly, Marinetti was one of those war-mongering frontmen. When Italy finally joined the Allies in 1915, he and his fellow Futurists signed up as quickly as possible. Large-scale destruction, especially bombardments, mesmerized those men, who viewed that kind of obscene terror as inspiration.


A World Of Modernity In Motion

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Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash by Giacomo Balla, 1912, via Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo


Futurism encompassed not just literature but also painting, sculpture, and music. Nonetheless, the domain of visual arts promoted with the most flair Marinetti’s aggressive and warped understanding of modernity. Marinetti’s Manifesto declared that “a racing motor car…is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”


Italian artists adopted the same principles of celebrating progress. Thanks to Marinetti, the main themes of Futurist art came to be movement, technology, revolution, and dynamism, while anything considered remotely “classic” was hastily discarded by the new harbingers of modernity.


Futurists were some of the first artists who did not mind being heckled or scorned; they actually welcomed violent reactions to their work. Moreover, they intentionally produced art that could offend a vast array of spectators whose national, religious, or other values were neglected.


Carlo Carra, for example, expressed most of his Futurist aspirations in his Funeral of the anarchist Galli in 1911. However imperceptible, intersecting planes and angular forms reflect the artist’s desire to portray the power behind movement. The adverse reactions from critics or peers, however, did not bother Carra in the slightest.


Inspirations And Influences From Cubism

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Funeral of the anarchist Galli by Carlo Carra, 1911, via MoMA, New York


After visiting the Salon d’Automne in Paris, the newly assembled Futurist painters could not avoid the pull of Cubism. Although they claimed their works to be completely original, the evident sharp geometry in the paintings they produced afterward proves a different point.


In Boccioni’s Materia, the influence of Cubism leaks through the strict lines and abstract style of the painting. The artist’s obsession with movement, however, was something that indeed remained an exclusively Futurist trademark. Most Futurist artists wished to find ways to capture motion and avoid stillness, in which they did certainly succeed. For example, Giacomo Balla’s most influential painting, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, depicts a dynamic dachshund and draws inspiration from chrono-photography. Chronophotographic studies strove to depict the mechanics of movement through multiple overlapping images that reflected the whole process instead of one of its instances. Balla does the same depicting the lightning-quick gait of the walking dachshund.


Futurist Sculpture And The Spectator

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Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni, 1913 (cast 1931 or 1934), via MoMA, New York; with Development of a Bottle in Space by Umberto Boccioni, 1913 (cast 1950), via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


While promoting modernity, Futurist artwork engages the spectator and draws the audience into its crazy spinning world. Futurism was supposed to reflect unpredictable change. In sculpture, for example, this change came in the form of reshaped and modernized classical figures. It is difficult not to notice how the pose of Boccioni’s famous Unique Forms of Continuity in Space imitates the famous Hellenistic masterpiece Nike of Samothrace while presenting a half-human-half-machine hybrid on a pedestal.


Boccioni’s Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, written in 1912, advocated for the use of unusual materials – glass, concrete, cloth, wire, and others. Boccioni leaped ahead of his time, envisioning a new type of sculpture– a work of art that could mold the space around itself. His piece Development of a Bottle in Space does precisely that. A bronze sculpture unfolds in front of the spectator and spirals out of control. Perfectly balanced, this work simultaneously presents the “inside” and the “outside” without defining the object’s contours. Much like his multi-dimensional bottle, Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Soccer Player recreates the same fleeting movement of geometric forms.


Boccioni met a fate that seems almost poetic for a Futurist fascinated by dynamism, war, and aggression. Having enlisted in the army during World War I, Boccioni fell from a galloping horse to his death in 1916, symbolically marking a return to the old order.


Futurism returned around the twenties, but by that time, it was co-opted by the Fascist movement. Instead of violence and revolution, it focused on abstract progress and speed. However, the more rebellious streak of Futurism did find apologists outside of Italy. Yet, even their Futurism did not last too long.


Futurism Crosses Borders

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Cyclist by Natalia Gonchareva, 1913, via The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg


Russian artists were particularly susceptible to Futurism, and their interest did not rise without good reason. Much like Italy, pre-revolutionary Russia was stuck in the past. It was hopelessly backward in terms of industrialization and modernization, especially compared to Britain or the US. As a response, rebellious young intellectuals who eventually destroyed the old regime and extinguished absolutism naturally turned to the most provocative of the contemporary artistic trends – Futurism.


In this way, Futurism took Russia by storm. Much like its beginnings in Italy, Futurism in Russia began with a virulent poet  – Vladimir Mayakovski. He was a man who played with words, experimented with sound poems, and scorned the beloved classics while still acknowledging their worth. Alongside poets, artists such as Ljubov Popova, Mikhail Larionov, and Natalia Goncharova founded their own club and adopted the visual language of dynamism and opposition. In the Russian case, the Futurists acknowledged neither Marinetti nor their Italian colleagues but created an eerily similar community.


Most Russian artists swayed between Cubism and Futurism, often inventing styles of their own. A perfect example of this marriage between Cubist forms and Futurist dynamism is Popova’s Model. As a painter and designer, Popova applied the Futurist principles of (and obsession with) movement to abstract plots, deconstructing forms in the style of Picasso.


Popova’s colleague, Mikhail Larionov, went as far as to invent his own artistic movement of Rayonism. Like Futurist art, Rayonist pieces focused on never-ending motion, the only difference lying in Larionov’s obsession with light and the way surfaces could reflect it.


However, Futurism took roots not only in Russia. It spread far and wide across the world, influencing many prominent artists and thinkers.


Futurism And Its Many Faces

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The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation of an Old Theme by Joseph Stella, 1939, via Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Many Italian Futurists had tight connections with Eastern European cultural elites during the interwar period. In Romania, for example, the aggressive Futurist rhetoric not only influenced the future world-famous philosopher Mircea Eliade but also shaped the paths of other Romanian abstract artists. For one, Marinetti knew and admired sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Brancusi, however, never actually accepted any of the violent Futurist messages, his own understanding of modernism having a more nuanced nature. Nonetheless, many young Constructivists and abstract artists fell for Futurism’s appeal, including the future Dadaists Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara.


Futurism was not only prominent in revolutionary states swept by changes or on the margins of Europe. In the US, the idea of celebrating progress, even in an aggressive and somewhat relentless manner, did not seem that alien either. Italian-born American artist Joseph Stella reflected his American experiences in a series of works that mirror the chaotic nature of American cities. Captivated by urban cityscapes, Stella painted his Brooklyn Bridge in 1920, when European Futurism was already starting to transform, turning to aeropittura (aeropainting) and a much less militant rhetoric. By the start of World War II, the very dictatorship and violence that seemed so raw and refreshing to many Futurists brought changes that most of those artists never wished to see.


Futurism And Its Controversial Political Impacts

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Flying over the Coliseum in a Spiral by Tato (Giulelmo Sansoni), 1930, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


Futurism is often associated with Italian fascism since artists like Giacomo Balla were linked to Mussolini’s propaganda machine. Marinetti himself, the very founder of Futurism, even readjusted the movement to better fit the Duce’s agenda, becoming far less rebellious in his literary works and private life. Marinetti even fought with the Italian army in Russia to prove his undying loyalty to his state. Predictably, Marinetti was condemned by Italian communists and anarchists for betraying Futurist ideals, as such with a movement that has found adepts on all sides of the radical political spectrum. Romanian Futurism, for example, was dominated by right-wing activists, while Russian Futurism brought forth leftists.


In the 1930s, certain groups of Italian fascists branded Futurism as degenerate art, forcing the return to more realistic and less rebellious styles. In Soviet Russia, the movement’s fate was somewhat similar. The painter Ljubov Popova eventually became part of the Soviet establishment, the poet Vladimir Mayakovski committed suicide, and other Futurists left the country or perished.


Ironically, it turned out that dictators, so well-regarded by many Futurists for their aggressive approach to power and innovation, turned out to be the ones who turned on the stubborn and relentless artists. They did not worship modernity the same way the painters and poets of Futurism did. While Futurism faded away in Italy and the Soviet bloc, it did give power to new art movements elsewhere.


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Speeding Train by Ivo Pannaggi, 1922, via Fondazione Carima-Museo Palazzo Ricci, Macerata


Futurism inspired Vorticism, Dadaism, and Constructivism. It brought forward change and stirred minds all over the world, always highlighting the revolutionary and the controversial. By itself, Futurism is neither fascist, nor communist, nor anarchist. It is provocative and intentionally polarizing, relishing in its ability to stir powerful emotions in the audience.


Futurism is shocking, revolting, and modern. It slaps the audience in the face; it does not flatter. Marinetti wrote, “Museums: absurd abattoirs for painters and sculptors who ferociously slaughter each other with color-blows and line-blows along the disputed walls!” But in the end, ironically, these absurd abattoirs are the places where most Futurists’ works have ended up.

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By Ana-Teodora KurkinaMA & PhD in HistoryAna is a social historian who holds a PhD in history from LMU Munich and UR Regensburg. She earned her second MA from Central European University, Budapest and her first MA from MSU, Moscow. When she is not writing about art and propaganda, she plays strategic boardgames. Her professional interests revolve around Eastern Europe.